by Leah Heim
Stephen King’s Carrie is an unlikely book, even for a man whose novels feature ax-wielding nurses and killer clowns. Though it is King’s debut novel, Carrie handles subject matter that some authors don’t dare to touch even in their most mature creations, such as religious fanaticism, ambiguous moral decisions, and the vacuum of terror that is teenage existential angst. These topics, however, look practically tame in comparison to one of Carrie’s earliest-introduced themes: menstruation. King opens the novel with the infamous shower sequence in which Carrie, a will-be telekinetic, has her first period, prompting her classmates to chant and throw feminine products at her. This episode is one of many torments that Carrie endures, building to the dramatic climax of the book, when Carrie, after being covered in pig’s blood at prom, uses her telekinesis to take revenge on everyone who has wronged her. (It’s worth mentioning that even this destruction and death seem less startling than that first shower scene; why does the natural process of menstruation seem more outrageous than murder?) While the shock value of such an opening scene cannot be overstated, Carrie’s period serves as more than a plot device. Rather, it is the literal appearance of the uniquely female abject, something that Carrie will increasingly experience in the form of her developing telekinesis. By accepting her relationship with this form of abjection, Carrie becomes a compelling figure of female empowerment.
Abjection, as put forth by Julia Kristeva in her 1980 essay “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection,” is the situation in which a human being encounters something that makes him or her question the definite lines of their identity. In Kristeva’s words, “[t]he abject is not an ob-ject [sic] facing me, which I name or imagine. Nor is it an ob-jest [sic], an otherness ceaselessly fleeing in a systematic quest of desire. . . . The abject has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I” (Kristeva 1). While people have encounters with the abject every day, women in particular possess a special relationship with it. Monthly menstruation is only a small offshoot of another abjected state, pregnancy, during which a woman has an alien mass growing inside of her body for nine months straight. Therefore, there exists a subsection of the abject that is uniquely female, and it is this form of abjection that Carrie discovers in the locker room shower.
While menstruation is Carrie’s first encounter with the female abject, it is not her last. Her physical maturity brings another development into her life—the ability to move objects with her mind, or telekinesis. Though Carrie’s personal situation is unique, she is not the first woman in popular fiction to acquire this power, as evidenced by Dr. Jean Grey of The X-Men, Matilda of Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name, and Eleven of the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things—just to mention a few. In fact, one is faced with a plethora of memorable female telekinetics, while male telekinetics seem to mostly fade into the background. Barbara Creed, professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Melbourne, offers an explanation for this within the lens of feminist analysis by saying that Carrie’s telekinesis (and, by logical extension, that of other female telekinetics) represents a woman whose powers to create and destroy have not yet been socially harnessed (Rice 200). Telekinesis then assumes an allegorical function in these stories: it is a weapon with which women symbolically fight patriarchal repression.
However, I posit that one notices more female telekinetics because telekinesis is itself a form of abjection. Through this power, a person has the ability to extend themselves into the world around them and manipulate objects at will; in Carrie, turning on sprinklers with her telekinesis even allows Carrie to taste “iron in her mouth, cold wet metal, the taste of water drunk from the nozzle of a garden hose” (King 187). As such, telekinesis is the ultimate blurring of lines; Carrie’s power is the ultimate form of the abject. It makes cultural sense, therefore, that women—those eerie, bleeding creatures—have broader access to it.
Consequently, when Carrie uses her telekinesis to wreak havoc on her classmates and her town, she is immersing herself unabashedly in her own form of the female abject. Kristeva calls this process of embracing the abject jouissance: “One does not know it, one does not desire it, one joys in it [on enjouit]. Violently and painfully. A passion” (Kristeva 9, emphasis and bracket original). One of the classic examples of jouissance is breastfeeding, where a mother finds joy and empowerment in the blurring of boundaries that occurs when she nourishes her child from the milk of her own body. Mirroring this experience, Carrie rejoices in her abjection when she takes control of her telekinetic ability, and she similarly finds liberation and strength in jouissance, enough for her to destroy the entire town.
In light of this, it becomes apparent that telekinesis in Stephen King’s Carrie serves not only as a symbol of the power of the unharnessed woman, as suggested by Creed, but as a literal representation of the uniquely female abject. Such a view of telekinesis finds a parallel in the experience of jouissance, during which women celebrate the female abject and discover their own distinctive form of power. In a patriarchal society, this is all quite spooky—thus, the often horrifying portrayal of telekinetic women. Such a trend nods warily to the unfamiliar depths of female strength derived from the female abject.
No wonder so many men want to be nice and hold doors open.
King, Stephen. Carrie. Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1974.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, 1982.
Rice, Carla. Becoming Women: The Embodied Self in Image Culture. University of Toronto Press, 2014.